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Another day, another defector from Assad's Syria

The Syrian ambassador to Iraq defected today, the second prominent Sunni to do so in two weeks. With their departures, Syria's Sunni vs. Alawite conflict hardens.

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Still, his flight from Syria is significant irrespective of whether it was a political defection to the ranks of the opposition or simply a move to protect himself and his family in case the Assad regime collapses. Manaf's father was Mustafa Tlass, a long-serving defense minister and confederate of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current leader.

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The Tlass family symbolized the alliance between prominent Sunnis and the Alawites, an obscure offshoot of the Shiite sect to which the Assads belong. Mustapha Tlass, like several senior Syrian figures from the Hafez al-Assad era, was gradually squeezed out of power following Bashar's ascension to the presidency in 2000. Last year, shortly after the uprising against Assad rule began, Mustapha Tlass travelled to Paris, citing medical reasons, and is believed to still be in the French capital. Firas Tlass, Manaf's brother, also left Syria several months ago.

The bulk of the Syrian opposition is Sunni, mainly drawn from the rural areas and the urban working classes. The departures of Manaf Tlass and Fares are the first indications that even prominent Sunni regime loyalists are beginning to break away. Such defections will likely strengthen the impression that the struggle for Syria is devolving into a sectarian conflict, pitting the mainly Sunni rebels against an entrenched Alawite elite while other minorities, such as Christians, Druze, and Kurds, watch apprehensively from the sidelines.

The core units of the Syrian army are still holding together, even though military defections have increased in recent weeks with ever more senior officers fleeing for the relative safety of neighboring Turkey. The defections have bolstered the morale of the rebel FSA which has shown improving military skills lately combined with a greater supply of weapons and ammunition. Perhaps in an indication of the intensifying violence, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that video evidence has emerged that the Syrian army has been employing Soviet-era cluster bomb munitions against rebel-held hills near Hama in the center of the country.

"If confirmed, this would be the first documented use of these highly dangerous weapons by the Syrian armed forces during the conflict," said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch.


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